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Paint shadows the brush in a soft trace of thought, reflex and sentiment. There is a notion that painting exists as a continually active present, an imprecise moment held by the artist’s mark, inevitably past and yet somehow present. What is left behind in Judith Wright’s work is more than the passage of trailing paint. Her painted conversations leave a whisper hanging in the air.
‘Judith Wright: Conversations’, a survey exhibition curated by Rhana Devenport, Director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand, includes work from 1987 to the present and shows Wright’s varied output of videos, artist’s books, paintings and installations.
Wright’s work creates conversations between the various mediums she uses in her art and between her life and her art. Echo of Memory Trod [Two Hands] (1996), an installation of shoe lasts for example, is a reflection both of her years as a dancer and of the shoe factory owned by her former husband. The videos are made with friends and family, her son taking a prime role in such works as One Dances. Wright’s time in India for the 1997 ‘Fire and Life’ project is represented in the exhibition by the video Veil (1997). In this work the artist covered the camera with a veil to film in the streets, using video for information gathering to discover an ideal note-taking medium, the equivalent of the sketch book. While maintaining her practice as a video artist, Wright was quick to realise video was the best way to capture and hold movement for transformation into paintings. Many of the paintings made since then have started with impressions derived from video.
This approach has an inbuilt imprecision: it is difficult to draw from a moving screen. Wright’s intention however is not to create a mimetic version of an on-screen image but to ensure that her art is linked to reality and bears traces of the events and emotions of life. Her art has an economy of means, a formal rigour and an essential aesthetic but this sourcing provides a vital connection with experience.
Works like One dances (2003) are suggestive of shadows cast by unnamed actions. Grey areas of paint are scumbled on the primed paper surface like smoky stains. Leonardo da Vinci invented his atmospheric sfumato technique after seeing a candle leave ambiguous images created by carbon residue which he read as visual puzzles; images softened by time and distance and shaped by the imagination. Wright builds an ambiguity in her work that operates in a similar fashion when shapes and edges provide visual clues that gently reveal images to the viewer.
Some images are readily interpreted: Memory Trace (1993), an artist book laid on the floor, is open at pages that carry simple head shapes, one in black on white and the other in white and black. Each page converses with the other. Nearby a video work, ‘Trace’ (1998), picks up on this and extends the idea further: a head dunks repeatedly into a bucket of milk leaving ripples as traces of the action and in a similar way contrasts dark and light elements. While strictly speaking the video is about the quest for lost youth, it is also equivocal enough to work like the blots of a Rorschach test in which the enigmatic scene provokes a response form the viewer.
More ambiguous was the triptych Between (2007) with merging and conversing biomorphic brown and grey forms on the white wrinkled, waxed paper. Positioned in front of these were three music stands supporting handmade books, open to similar content as the painting. The books suggested a musical score, a story of interaction and progression to be played out. There is a formality to most of the paintings which, together with the sober palette, intimates stillness, quiet and solitude, so the appeal to sound is welcome. Shadow of Silence (1993) positions an oversized artists book with a French horn, a poetic combination that reads like a musical score for life. For me Wright’s paintings are built around notions of memory, suggesting the traces and shadows of emotions, loves and lives. The simple forms conjure up existence that once was, not unlike the eerie outlines of people found on the stone benches in the centre of Hiroshima after the bomb.
With a built-in mnemonic, each painting becomes a spring-loaded device to trigger memory or inspire reverie. The broad forms act as prompts or keys into half-recalled experience. These shades of the past act like the shadows in the allegory of Plato’s Cave, that is, as a way of connecting with the real world. Plato believed that truth could be gained from looking at universals in order to gain understanding of present experience. Wright’s images encourage the mind to move from the visible realm of images to the invisible world of meaning and understanding. Her shadows of what was provide a way of understanding the rabble of sensual perceptions. Lugubrious and laconic, the apparent simplicity of her art belies the depth below the surface. The great risk is to appear merely decorative.
Wright’s most recent video, ‘The Gift’ (2008) uses dance and masks to reflect on the human condition. It is simple and poetic and effective as a symbolic statement, with no real beginning or end. The realism of video is a foil to the abstract forms in the paintings and presumably is intended to provide a point of entry to the broader survey of works in the exhibition.
In the display at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra, individual works united to work as an installation. Wright uses a palette of simple earth tones, using blacks as a fillip to the dull reds, cold chalky whites against uncomplicated compositions of shape and line. The mood is sombre, elegiac. A distinct melancholy prevails as the viewer registers presences and absences to deduce the world from the remains of what was. The horn has been blown, and now the sound fades beyond hearing but for a sweet basso profundo, a profound, lingering note of our conversation with Judith Wright.
The exhibition ‘Conversations: Judith Wright’ was accompanied by an anthology of the same name which was launched at both venues. Conversations: Judith Wright, ed. Rhana Devenport, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand and Judith Wright, 2007. The anthology contains essays by Rhana Devenport, Suhanya Raffel, Liza Lim, Michele Helmrich, Jonathan Goodman, Julie Ewington.